From '70s beedis to water tower: Art director Jacki speaks to TNM on 'Vada Chennai'

In this interview, art director Jacki speaks of the stupendous effort that went into making Vada Chennai, from the beedis that the characters smoke to the houses and appliances.
From '70s beedis to water tower: Art director Jacki speaks to TNM on 'Vada Chennai'
From '70s beedis to water tower: Art director Jacki speaks to TNM on 'Vada Chennai'
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Director Vetrimaaran’s Vada Chennai, the first of his trilogy, opened to mixed reviews last week with many appreciating its visual brilliance and gripping character sketches while others panned the film for its portrayal of life in the area.

Following criticism from certain quarters, Vetrimaaran has agreed to remove a few scenes deemed offensive from the film. But the efforts that went into the making of this film that travels back and forth in time, from the seventies to the early 2000s, is undeniable.

The sheer magnitude of detailing, right from the film stills and advertisements painted on the walls to the kind of cigarettes and bikes used by the characters, a lot of effort has gone into the making of Vada Chennai. TNM spoke to art director Jacki, the man behind the elaborate sets in Vada Chennai, and we unearthed a good number of interesting facts about the making of the movie sets. Jacki was assisted by Madhavan and Jothivel aong with his set assistants Dhanasekar, Ganga and Manoharannan for this film.

The making of Vada Chennai sets

For those who’ve seen the film, the importance of the jail set and the Nagoorar Thottam set comes through clearly. The film is entirely shot in these two locations and therefore the onus lay on Jacki’s shoulders to recreate them.

“First off, I’d like to thank Vetrimaaran for believing that I can pull this off. He never questioned or double checked my ways. It is this kind of freedom that lets you work better,” he begins.

That the project has been in the making for close to a decade is a known fact. So when Vetrimaaran finally called Jacki, saying that the film would soon start rolling, he was caught a bit off guard. “I had told him earlier that we needed six months in pre-production and research. But you know how it works in films…,” he trails off with a chuckle.

Jacki finally got about 45 days to do his groundwork and set things in motion. “I had visited the Madras Central Jail once and we started first by making the facade. Then came the long corridor, then the two main blocks and we just kept adding as and when the scenes were being made,” he shares.

This set that was erected inside Binny Mills kept growing as the film progressed. “Someone who had been to the jail came up to me and asked if I had been there many times. He was surprised at how well it resembled the original,” says Jacki.

While this jail set took them about 43 days to make, the Nagoorar Thottam one took about 20 days. A total of 55 houses were built and the most challenging part was to show the change in time - from thatched roof houses to brick houses - from the '70s to the 2000s.

Right from the doors to the tyres and clothes that lay on roofs, the team left nothing to chance. “Here again, while we were making the sets, one person who had lived in Nagoorar Thottam in the seventies stopped near a particular house and said he wanted to click pictures of it. He had apparently lived in that exact same spot and his house too looked exactly the same. We were shocked,” he says.

Another interesting set, and an important one where the film in fact begins is that of the hotel. “Vetrimaaran gave us specific directions on how this hotel should look like. He told us about the long shot that’d follow Samuthirakani as he walked from the table to the wash area, so the area had to be big. Then we made a smaller family dining room, as demanded by the scene. The tables and chairs that you see were custom made at a furniture shop in Coimbatore. This was one set that stays throughout in the film,” he shares.

True indeed, this hotel with its old world charm and retro furniture is the place where one of the most tense sequences in the film takes place. “We also made another set which you haven’t brought up yet,” he chuckled adding “The water tower.”

Of course! This water tower that serves as Anbu’s (Dhanush) go-to place couldn’t possibly be the original. “Dhanush, in fact, was all for shooting at the real place. But how would you take the entire crew up so high? So we made two different sets, the tower and its top,” shares Jacki. 

The devil is in the details

True to this saying, the team spent several hours on research in making the right kind of props for the film. Right from cigarettes to home appliances from the '70s, Jacki had to sift through everything with great care. “The kind of cigarettes that were used back then were smaller than what is available today. We got them and cut them into sizes to fit into bluebird boxes,” he says.

The team went to great lengths to find Boost and Horlicks in glass bottles, Ponds powder in tins and Milk Bikis in smaller packs, most of which were custom ordered from the manufacturers. Sometimes they'd buy new props like pots and bedsheets and exchange them for old, used ones.

Youtube screengrab

For the advertisements that were painted on the walls, Jacki and his team tried to draw some reference from the internet and failed. “There were no Tamil press ads on the internet. Thankfully, one of my assistant’s father was a signboard artist who worked in the '70s. He travelled to Nagapattinam to send us references from his father’s works.”

The bikes too have interesting stories behind them. “Ameer’s Java that you see in the film belonged to my friend D Prakash from Pondicherry. His condition was that we ride it down from Pondicherry and not transport it on a truck. My uncle PT Christopher from Cuddalore arranged for a rare Explorer from Bengaluru in addition to other rare bikes. These were some of the bikes seen in the film,” says Jacki.

They also put in a lot of research to find the right kind of home appliances that were available in the seventies. “We had specific timelines, 1987, 1991 and then 2000. Did we have washing machines in 1991? What did they look like? The shop sequence itself was one of the toughest,” he adds.

Of the wall paintings that were seen in the film, the most prominent are the Chinna Thambi movie poster, Rajini and Kamal movie posters, Dyanora and Ponds advertisements. “Vetrimaaran’s favourite, however, was the one where they made the West Indies cricketer Vivian Richards model for a beedi brand called Kareem Beedi,” he chuckles.

Building up and breaking down

As an art director who has worked in films like Paruthiveeran and Aadukalam, Jacki shares that recreating a period is one of the most challenging aspects of his profession. “You might think that the nineties shouldn’t be difficult to recreate. The nineties was almost 30 years ago now. The kind of development we’ve seen in the last 10 years has been phenomenal. You may not be able to grasp the scale of change even if you have to rewind just 3 decades ago,” he tells us.

Jacki further adds that he instructed his assistants to not use their creativity but to just replicate.

Set designing is also a process that leaves behind its mark, quite literally. What kind of attention does he pay to dismantling hours of labour? “When my assistants and I walk into someone’s house, we don't think it is someone else's’. I also make sure that they don’t leave behind a mess; I do want to go back, don’t I? While it is natural for the production team to shift their focus to the next shooting spot, I make sure a couple of my assistants stay behind to help them with clearing up the area,” he finishes. 

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